I made my first gum bichromate print in 1991. It was love at first sight! That first wasn’t much to look at — success with gum can be frustratingly elusive — but I was intrigued by the hands-on nature of the process.
My path in photography began a decade earlier with an impulse to picture the world around me. Taking my inspiration from poet William Carlos Williams’ declaration: “No ideas but in things.” I worked as a photojournalist for a variety of newspapers and magazines in Europe, Africa, and the United States. In 1987, I became company photographer for Durham 's Manbites Dog Theater, maintaining that position throughout MDT's 31-year span. Throughout the 1990s, I taught photography at the Duke University Craft Center and at the Durham School of the Arts.
But in this century, that impulse to picture the world took an inward turn to image making that registers not so much on the surface, or the intellect, but in the deeper aspects of the psyche. The place of dreams. Gum printing provides a tool in that effort.
Gum bichromate photography is a hands-on printing process. It involves mixing natural pigments with light-sensitive chemistry and gum Arabic. That mixture is brushed onto the surface of the paper, a black and white negative is attached to the brushed surface and exposed to UV light. The process is repeated multiple times over days and weeks – up to a dozen or more exposures before a print is finished.
What I’ve found is that when everything goes just right, the original captured moment (the fraction-of-a-second exposure inside the camera) acquires a new kind of time that is decidedly post-photographic. The layering of pigments in a gum print, like millennia of sediment visible in the walls of a canyon, achieves for that moment an archetypal quality, like something from an old memory or a dream one can’t quite remember.
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